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Reformers Focus on "Useless" State Board of Elections

Barbara Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters, and Blair Horner of NYPIRG answer questions from reporters
Barbara Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters, and Blair Horner of NYPIRG answer questions from reporters

Reform groups are focusing attention on Governor Cuomo’s anti corruption commission’s recommendations to beef up the anemic State Board of Elections but say they have not given up hope of public campaign financing for state wide races.

The reform groups say the State Board of Elections in its present form is “useless” and “incompetent” when it comes to enforcing campaign violations, and needs to be replaced.

Blair Horner is with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

“The board must go,” Horner said. “It’s time to get rid of it and replace it with something that actually does the work.”

Cuomo’s Moreland Act Commission heard testimony from Board of Elections officials this fall, where they admitted to essentially doing nothing when it comes to enforcing the 100’s of alleged violations of campaign finance laws. Horner says perhaps among the most “eye opening” aspects of the testimony was that investigators who tried to do their jobs and launch probes were either ignored or punished.    

NYPIRG’s Bill Mahoney says the Board even actively helped to create new loopholes. He says they condoned the growing use of Limited Liability Corporations to skirt existing donation limits, and they loosely defined how politicians could spend their campaign funds on personal uses. Mahoney says politicians were permitted to spend their campaign money on golf games, cigars, and even new cars on a “regular basis”.

The Board of Elections is currently headed by four commissioners, two from each major political party, which most of the time results in gridlock.

The groups say one possible solution is to have five commissioners, appointed by the four majority and minority party legislative leaders, and the governor.  They also support the commission’s idea to set up a new,  independent agency to enforce campaign finance laws.    

The groups wrote Cuomo a letter and are requesting that the governor meet now with legislative leaders to work out an ethics reform package that includes restructuring of the Board.

While the focus of their effort is on reforming the state Board of Elections, they say they have not given up on another key recommendation of the Moreland Act Commission, to adopt public campaign financing. Governor Cuomo seemed to take a step back from that, citing on going opposition from the Republican controlled State Senate as an obstacle. And it’s uncertain whether there are enough Democratic votes in the Senate for the bill to pass. The governor did though later reaffirm his commitment to public campaign financing.

Barbara Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters, was a special advisor to the Moreland Act Commission. She believes the governor is sincere.

“This governor has been very definitive about his desire for public campaign financing,” Bartoletti said.  

Horner, with NYPIRG,  says it’s too early to give up on any proposal , 2014 has not even started.

“It is December. The legislature is not even in town yet,” Horner said. “I think it’s the wrong time for anybody to be rolling out the white flag”

The groups say they hope Governor Cuomo will make use of the bully pulpit during his State of the State address, in less than a month, and his budgetary powers, to get a head start on advancing the Moreland Commission’s proposals.   They say he managed to turn votes to win passage of same sex marriage and a property tax cap, as well as gun control legislation. They say he can use his skills this time to achieve agreement on a reform package.